GOGathon: Autopsies & Artists

by Arthur B

Microids' adventure games Post Mortem and Still Life come under the scalpel.
Post Mortem and the two Still Life games are joined at the hip. The common thread running through each of them is the involvement of the MacPherson family - folk with a very mild psychic capability which occasionally gives them bits and pieces of help when it comes to investigating mysteries. Some of the members of the family go into law enforcement on purpose, whilst others are drawn into the detective game with a little more reluctance, but either way they find themselves getting embroiled in occult conspiracies or ritualistic art-murders a little more frequently than your average citizen.

What should be a great recipe for spooky mystery adventure gameplay, however, actually turns out to be something of a mixed bag. What killed the series? Only a full autopsy can find out...

Post Mortem

Microïds were clearly in an adventure game mood in 2002, because as well as developing this one in that year they also made Syberia, but whilst the latter game won heaps of praise from those critics who were still paying attention to point-and-click adventures at that point in time and is still spoken of reverentially today, Post Mortem seems to have had a mixed reception to say the least. In particular, it's notable that the Still Life games aren't so much a direct sequel to this one so much as thorough conceptual rethinks from the ground up.

The basic premise of the game isn't bad - in fact, by and large the plot is fairly strong, though as I will discuss later it is stronger if you ignore the parts which are actually interactive. Our setting is Paris at some point between the World Wars, and our protagonist is Gus MacPherson, an American private detective who has retired from the sleuthing business to take up a quiet life as a painter. Gus' work isn't setting the art scene on fire, but he's at least befriended a small circle of fellow bohemians - but this tranquil existence is disturbed by the appearance of the mysterious Sophia Blake, who waves money at Gus until he agrees to step back into the PI game. Sophia's story is a troubling one: her sister and brother-in-law, Ruby and Regis Whyte, were murdered whilst staying at one of Paris' most chic hotels - specifically, they were decapitated, and their bodies were posed clutching their severed heads in their laps with antique coins stuffed into their mouths. Supposedly, Sophia just wants to make sure justice is done - and certainly, Inspector LeBrun of the gendarmerie seems more concerned with keeping a lid on the case than arriving at an acceptable solution. As in any good hardboiled detective story, of course, it turns out that Sophia isn't telling the whole truth - nor, indeed, are many of the other characters he runs into - and before long there's more killings, an innocent man in the frame, and occult menace spanning centuries complicating MacPherson's investigation, and he'll have to rely on all his wits plus his occasional flashes of clairvoyance if he's going to get to the bottom of the mystery.

The game is presented in a format which it probably makes sense to call "moving slideshow". As with Myst and subsequent adventure games in a similar vein, the action is presented from a first-person perspective; you move the mouse to the edge of the screen to look around, you right click to open your inventory, you left click to look closer at stuff or interact with things or move around. As with many of the more technologically rudimentary slideshow-style point-and-clicks (such as the original Myst or Barrow Hill), there's no animation for moving from place to place - you click to move forward and you sort of teleport forwards alarmingly and don't always end up looking in the same direction you were facing when you chose to move, which takes a little getting used to - but the visuals are less static than many slideshow games of this sort of vintage and budget range because the non-player characters who you can actually interact with and talk to (rather than those who are merely part of the scenery) are fully 3D animated.

This is a small touch - the 3D models for the NPCs having already been developed for cut scenes and conversation sequences (which are presented in a fully animated third person format) so adding them into otherwise-static images wouldn't represent an excessive amount of effort - but it makes a tremendous difference. The danger of slideshow-style games is that they can tend to feel rather lifeless - not least because you're spending a lot of time staring at a static or mostly static image when playing - so being able to see other human beings bobbing about doing their thing goes an incredibly long way to creating the illusion that the world isn't as static as it really is. The artsy bistro that MacPherson frequents has a lot of non-player characters present who aren't actually significant to the game in any way and consequently aren't animated, which you'd think wouldn't work when you combine that with the moving NPCs, but I actually think it adds a really interesting aesthetic to the location, nicely conveying that thing you get where you're meeting friends (or hunting down suspects) in crowded places where once you've spotted them they kind of jump out as little spots of humanity in the middle of an interchangeable mass.

In general, the quality of the graphics aren't brilliant even by the standards of 2002, but the developers do a good job of getting the most out of what they have; all the characters look individual and interesting, and the aesthetic of the game as a whole has enough distinctive character to pass muster. The soundtrack is mostly well-chosen too, though they do make one bizarre decision in that the "this is a very spooky place" track occasionally has random snatches of 1920s jazz creeping in here and there. I think the intended effect is to give the impression that you are occasionally hearing little snatches of ordinary life whilst you're creeping around the place in question, which kind of makes sense for the murder scene since it's in the middle of a busy hotel but it makes less sense for mysterious sealed-off underground alchemist's labs (to pull an example out of thin air).

The other sonic disappointment is the voice acting, which - in the English version at least - is rather lacklustre, though to be fair to the actors this doesn't seem to be entirely their fault; they're having to struggle with a script whose translation from the French isn't exactly brilliant, with a lot of lines being rather awkward and a few being clearly nonsensical. A similar lack of care affects the otherwise pretty decent automatic note-taking subsystem. MacPherson's notebook gradually fills up bit by bit with details of conversations you've had, documents you've required, and people you've met as the game progresses, which - if it worked properly - would be a good way of making sure you can go back and review vital clues you might have missed earlier and otherwise helping you get your thoughts in order. Unfortunately, sloppy editing means that some of the notes are either not very readable, and on top of that once I got to a certain point in the game the documents section of the notebook tended to break and the notes on suspects and contacts got wiped and replaced with the first of the notes you get in a brief segment in the middle of the game where you momentary play a different detective. (To be fair, these bugs might be down to me running the thing on Windows 7, but it otherwise plays fine on my machine aside from not very unhappy if you alt-tab out so I don't think that's the problem.)

On the positive side, the designers have clearly invested a lot of thought in the structure of the plot and the conversations you can have with people. Whilst the story is essentially linear, in common with most other point-and-click adventures, Microïds do an impressive job of working in alternate ways to solve particular problems - for instance, I'm fairly sure you don't need to find absolutely all the clues in order to exonerate the innocent man who gets accused of the murders, and at the start of the game you can actually turn down the job offer from Sophia - obviously in that case the game proper doesn't actually begin until you relent and phone the number she gives you to tell her you've changed your mind, but the fact that the game allows you to take that little diversion in the first place represents a surprising amount of flexibility for a point-and-click. A point of particular excellence is the conversation system; whereas in many point-and-click adventures you will usually have a chance to use every conceivable conversation option in a chat with an NPC until you've exhausted them all, here there are a large proportions of conversations which are non-repeatable and can go off in all sorts of different tangents depending on which tack you take. I was particularly impressed with the final conversation you can have with the bad guy; although the resolution of the confrontation comes down to the same set of options whichever tack you take, you have the choice of either treating the guy as though he is just plain insane or actually talking like you buy into the idea that there might be something supernatural going on after all, and which tack you take radically transforms the tone of the showdown even though the only thing that's different are the words being said.

However, the conversations are far from perfect. In particular, I think the designers could have done with sitting down and properly organising the conversational options and responses into proper flow charts to look for continuity errors, which they clearly haven't done here; I caught several points where you can refer to something in a conversation which the person you are talking to hasn't actually mentioned yet, a fairly blatant error which I found really confusing when it first came up and unintentionally hilarious by the third or fourth time it happened. Maybe this is meant to be a way of simulating Gus' mild psychic abilities, but I think it's more likely to be a simple failure to do proper checking of when in a conversation a particular subject of discussion should become available.

An even more crucial gameplay flaw arises when it comes to the puzzle design. It almost seems as though there were two schools of thought at work within the development team; for the most part, the puzzles in the game are logical problems which might come up in the process of investigating an occult murder mystery, resolved through sensible means, and which by and large don't take too long to work out and consequently don't rob the story of much of its momentum. but there are several bottlenecks in the game where progress is only possible if a particularly difficult puzzle is cracked. One particularly irritating incident early in the game involves you trying to produce a sketch of a suspect from descriptions you've obtained from witnesses over the course of the game, which is in principle a good idea for a puzzle but when the identikit options the game presents you with gives you multiple equally good candidates for "widely-spaced eyes" and "flat, medium-sized ears" and "short, straight hair" it's rather maddening, not least because to check to see whether you have the right sketch you have to stop, talk to an NPC, see how they react, and if they don't freak out you have to return to fiddling with your sketch again.

There is a distressing tendency with the more difficult puzzles to allow the logic of puzzle-solving to overrule considerations of consistency within the story; for instance, there's one bit towards the end where you need to find hidden shapes in a painting which, when put together, indicate a particular Parisian landmark which is the next place Gus needs to go to in order to advance his investigation. The problem with this puzzle is that it expects us to believe that in a life-or-death situation Gus would take his time to find every single piece of the puzzle to put together, even when you've hit the point where you've got the name of the location is literally spelled out and the only part of the solution left to find is a segment of an ornamental arch which is entirely incidental to working out what the location is.

That puzzle has other issues; some of the puzzle pieces show up on the painting they are hidden in as white lines against a white background, which is impossible to see on my monitor unless I am viewing the game from precisely the right angle. This might be due to my particular monitor, but I don't think so I don't usually have this problem with it, at least); that said, there are definitely issues with playing the game on modern display equipment, not least because so far as I can tell there is no way to force the game to run on its originally intended aspect ratio if you are using a widescreen monitor. This results in the graphics being a little stretched out, which in some cases makes puzzles impossible to complete without a walkthrough - for instance, there's a puzzle involving a bunch of dials on a book where the letters "a", "d" and "n" on the puzzle key all looked like variations on "a" to me because of the way the stretched-out image looked on my monitor.

The real problem with the harder puzzles, however, is that they act as sudden roadblocks in the game which rob it of its momentum; since they are substantially more difficult than most of the other puzzles, odds are you've built up quite a head of steam by the time you whack into them, and I find that in that sort of circumstance my inclination is to reach for a walkthrough almost straight away because I've become sufficiently engaged in the plot that I don't want to be slowed down - a respect in which the high standard of the game's plot (if you set aside some of the instances of puzzle logic overriding story logic and the ropey translation of the dialogue) actually works against itself.

On balance, Post Mortem is a game which shows a lot of potential but needs crucial polishing in key areas, and I'm not overall surprised that a direct sequel never manifested. In particular, whilst the story is really compelling and manages to judge the balance between supernatural conspiracy weirdness and noirish sleuthing to an unusually deft extent for an occult detective story, the sloppy translation obscures the game's strengths and the poor job done of maintaining continuity and ensuring that puzzle logic and story logic do not conflict means that in retrospect I'd have rather watched it as a short film than played through it. In fact, its flaws are sufficiently evident that even the usually uncritical adventure game community seem to have embraced it; the Adventure Gamers review gave it a measly two stars, whilst Just Adventure did a good job of highlighting the continuity flaws and gave it a B-, which sounds unreasonably generous until you note that the same site gave the infamous Limbo of the Lost a B-grade before the plagiarism scandal broke, despite the game having substantially more serious flaws. So far as I can tell there is no way to get as low as a C grade on Just Adventure unless you murder one of the reviewer's friends and stuff a coin in their mouth.

Still Life

This sequel to Post-Mortem offers a major gear change, with a new protagonist and two storylines unfolding in different time periods. Perhaps the major change is in the presentation, with the first-person Myst-alike presentation going away in favour of a third person point-and-click adventure presentation in a style reminiscent of a darker, grittier take on the ligne claire affectations of Syberia.

Our new protagonist is Victoria McPherson, an FBI agent on the trail of a serial killer in modern-day Chicago, and granddaughter of Gus from the first game; as her investigation proceeds, troubling parallels develop between the Chicago killings and a series of murders in Prague that Gus investigated as his courtship of Victoria's grandmother was proceeding. As the game progresses, it becomes apparent that both the Prague killer and the Chicago killer have similar tastes in victims - both prey on sex workers in some way - but that they also have some sort of artistic motive. Could the Chicago killer simply be pastiching the work of an earlier artist, or is there a more direct connection between them?

You don't get to find out. At least, not in this game.

The biggest caveat I can offer in respect of Still Life is that the game's plot palpably isn't finished. You don't actually get an ending to the story - it just stops abruptly in a ham-fisted setup for a sequel. To add insult to injury, when the sequel - Still Life 2 - came out, it doesn't even deliver on the story we're apparently promised here; at the end of this game Victoria heads off to Los Angeles to investigate a spate of murders in the 1950s which seem to be connected to the other strands of the case, but in 2 the Los Angeles strand is dealt with rapidly in the prologue and then never really touched again. Moreover, 2 doesn't even involve an investigation of the same killer - there's a small number of flashback sequences ot the events of the first game which fill in events immediately after the ending of that to give you closure there, and then it turns out the killer in 2 was an accomplice of the killer in Still Life.

Was this a deliberate artistic choice? I honestly don't think so - if I had to guess, I'd just say that they ran out of budget when making Still LIfe and shunted a bunch of plot off to the sequel which really belonged here. The thing is that there's no really good storytelling reason to withhold the reveal at the end of Still Life. The story has already gone through all the beats you expect a whodunnit to go through, and there's already been ample hints to allow players to guess who the killer was. Essentially, by the end there's only really one person it would make sense for it to be from an in-character perspective and from a storytelling perspective, and lo and behold it turns out to be that person.

OK, so the ending stinks - but is this worth playing through to the end to find that out? Frankly, I have my doubts. The first half of the game is genuinely gripping stuff which I really enjoyed, but around halfway through the writing and puzzle design begins to get a little rusty - there's too much in the way of tedious backtracking called for by the puzzles, and too many obtuse puzzles which pull you out of the internal logic of the story and remind you that you are playing a game rather than actually chasing a killer. Given how important an immersive atmosphere is to the earlier phases of the game, this is a real shame.

Victoria, for her part, is decent enough as far as providing a genuinely strong woman as a videogame protagonist goes. The game doesn't go out of its way to sexualise or infantilise her, she gets to do all the action-packed stuff you'd expect a male character in the maverick FBI agent role to do, and in general the game managed to convince me that the serial killer was in genuine peril from Victoria whilst at the same time convincing me that she was in the same general danger that anyone investigating a remorseless killer would be in. It's just a shame that she couldn't have been the main character in a really solid-all-the-way-through game that wasn't compromised to the extent that Still Life was. As it stands, I got bored enough with Still Life three-quarters of the way through that I simply didn't bother finishing it and watched Let's Plays instead, and I couldn't be arsed to even do that for the sequel.

Autopsy results: series died of complications from a prolapsed payoff brought about by rushed storytelling and design.

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Comments (go to latest)
Melanie at 02:34 on 2014-10-14
Hey, all the links in the article just go back around to this page. Also, the "plagiarism scandal" bit isn't a proper link, just some stray html.
Arthur B at 07:47 on 2014-10-14
Whups! Thanks for catching that.
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